County judge stops farmland conversion
The California Farm Bureau Federation is pleased with the Nov. 21 ruling that will - at least temporarily - prevent rancher Lee Traynham from turning his agricultural land into a conservation easement. The Farm Bureau had filed a lawsuit in Colusa County earlier this year, alleging the state avoided environmental laws when deciding to turn the farmland into wetlands.
“We are optimistic about ultimately prevailing on the merits of this case,” said Henry E. Rodegerdts, associate counsel for the Farm Bureau. He said the California Wildlife Conservation Board skipped around the law when it filed for a Class 13 categorical exemption, under the California Environmental Quality Act, in approving the conservation easement. That exemption allowed planners to avoid an environmental impact review, which the Farm Bureau wants the state to complete.
The latest ruling is an important milestone, Rodegerdts said. He hopes the ruling and the Farm Bureau’s case will prove to state officials that they should not be using categorical exemptions when completing a land conversion of this scale. The state should adhere to the same laws other agencies abide by when converting land uses, especially if it means taking farmland out of production, he said.
The granting of a preliminary injunction means the rancher must stop all activity on his ranch as it relates to the conservation easement. The injunction will remain in place until the court makes a final decision on the merits of the case.
Traynham was unavailable for comment this week. Farm Bureau leaders believe some of the land has at least been prepared for conversion.
In an interview with Capital Press earlier this year, the landowner said he is simply doing what he believes is right for the land, converting marginal farmland into valuable wildlife habitat. In fact, Traynham said the $500,000 he earned from the easement would be invested right back into agriculture on his large Colusa County ranch that has been in his family’s name for about 100 years.
While the Farm Bureau continues to prove an environmental impact review is necessary for the conservation easement, Colusa County has also filed a lawsuit against the ranch owner.
Part of the ranch is enrolled in the Williamson Act, requiring the land to be used for agricultural purposes only, said Tim Taylor, legal counsel for the county.
“Obviously by not farming and having a Williamson Act contract say the land shall be kept in agriculture creates an inconsistency,” Taylor said. Traynham signed the 20-year Williamson Act contract with the county in exchange for a lower tax rate on the property.
But that’s just one issue the county has with the rancher. Taylor said the rancher’s decision to create wetlands is inconsistent with the county’s general plan and zoning ordinances.
“There are critical reasons why you can’t conduct those types of land uses on this property,” Taylor said. “The land is zoned for agricultural use.”
The county’s formal complaint, also filed earlier this year, has not yet been argued before a judge.
Farm Bureau lawyers expect their case to go before the court again in January.
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